Top House leaders said Tuesday they're inching closer to an immigration deal they can bring to the floor for a vote "in the near term," and political momentum continued to build across the Capitol with Sen. Rand Paul adding his voice to those calling for the GOP to take a softer line on illegal immigration.
After years of stalemate in Washington, bipartisan groups are working in both chambers to try to come up with bills that would legalize the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in the U.S., and would rewrite the legal immigration system going forward.
"I made clear the day after the election that dealing with immigration reform was a top priority, and it is," House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, told reporters. "Last week the senior leaders met with our four members, who've been meeting with four Democrats now for over four years. And they're essentially in agreement over how to proceed."
House Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said he anticipates a deal in the lower chamber soon, and Senate Democrats have said they want to have a bill debated in committee next month.
But not everyone is on board with the fast pace.
Sen. Jeff Sessions and five other Republican senators fired a letter off to Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy on Tuesday saying they want more hearings and time to study before any bill is pushed through the committee. They pointed out that 43 new senators have joined the chamber since 2007, which is the last time the Senate debated broad immigration reforms.
"The process must be open and the public must be heard," Mr. Sessions said. "A sound process will take months, not days or weeks. And we'd be better off taking a step-by-step approach than trying to deal with these complex and emotional issues in one massive piece of legislation."
Two groups — one in the Senate and one in the House — are working behind closed doors to write bills. President Obama has also said if nobody gets a bill done soon, he'll send up his own version and ask the Senate to vote on that.
And despite the talk of progress, some major issues remain to be settled, including how to judge whether the borders are secure, how to treat future foreign workers, and what type of citizenship rights would be granted to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S.
Mr. Boehner, for example, brushed aside questions about citizenship rights while talking with reporters.
Democrats, though, said any final deal will have to allow illegal immigrants to obtain citizenship.
"My name will not be on any bill that prevents citizenship for those who are legalizing," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who has been a key voice on the issue for years. "Perhaps not an easy path or a uniform path for every undocumented immigrant who is legalizing to arrive at a green card at the end of the exact same process taking the exact same number of years for every person legalizing, but I will not prohibit immigrants who are legalizing from ever being citizens if they choose to apply."
Immigration has been politically tricky for years, with most Democrats supporting legalization and most Republicans opposed — but with notable exceptions in each party.
After last year's elections, though, in which Mr. Obama took an overwhelming share of the Hispanic vote, Republican leaders said their party must adjust on the issue.
In its 98-page election post-mortem this week, the Republican National Committee said the GOP must embrace immigration reform.
Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the early frontrunners for the party's presidential nomination in 2016, is part of the Senate negotiations on writing a bill.
And Mr. Paul, another early presidential frontrunner, added his name to the list of those calling for action — though he laid out his own principles for reform.
He said he wants to see an independent auditor evaluate whether the borders are secure and then have Congress vote on whether to accept that report.
Illegal immigrants now in the U.S., meanwhile, could earn "probationary" status, but wouldn't be given any new special path to citizenship. Instead, they could take advantage of existing methods.
Mr. Paul said his plan is a middle-ground solution that could attract conservative support while granting immigrants the thing they've sought — the chance to live and work in the U.S. with some legal protections.
But Mr. Paul insisted his plan doesn't grant new citizenship rights, but rather just cancels the current requirement that illegal immigrants return home and wait for years before coming back legally.
"It's not a new pathway, it's an existing pathway. And then what we have to figure out is if the existing pathway isn't working, how do we fix it," he told reporters after laying out his plan in a speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Mr. Gutierrez said he's noticed a marked change in conversations on Capitol Hill on immigration this year — including in the House Judiciary Committee, which is controlled by Republicans.
He said even the witnesses Republicans have called during their hearings have shown "a new openness" on the part of the GOP.
"I've had a hard time distinguishing between who was invited by Democrats and who was invited by Republicans," he said.
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